Q. Why is it important for students and faculty to collaborate with the practice community?
Public health practice is our front line of defense against community health threats. When teaching and research are connected to that front line, we can make a bigger difference in protecting the public.
Public health agencies, researchers and teachers are all working to solve the same problems, but they go about it in different ways. For example, some apply research methods while others develop and implement public health programs, but they are related. The work of researchers should inform the work of practitioners, and vice versa. The better integrated we are as students, researchers and practitioners, the better we will be at solving real public health problems.
Q. How are the School and practice community already working together?
The Northwest Center for Public Health Practice, which has been around since 1990, has a strong reputation for working with the practice community on research, evaluation and workforce development. Examples of other units and faculty across the School working with practice include a project led by the Department of Health Services faculty member Jessie Jones-Smith to evaluate Seattle’s sugary beverage tax in collaboration with Public Health – Seattle & King County.
Our Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences has a long history of close collaboration with state and local government agencies and community partners to study and mitigate health impacts of air and water quality problems and to improve worker safety across Washington.
I recently began creating an inventory of all the practice-engaged activities happening across the School so that we can grow these collaborations and ensure that our research and teaching feed directly into public health improvements.
Q. How can strong partnerships benefit both communities?
Strong engagement with the practice community helps academia identify local needs, and informs the kinds of research problems that we should be addressing to make the most impact. In addition, opportunities for students to gain real-world experience happen through these networks and can provide students with a more complete picture of what public health work really looks like.
The practice partners can benefit from capacity support through students working on practicums, field training opportunities and filling jobs. At the faculty engagement level, we could provide domain expertise in areas such as environmental health, epidemiology, design and implementation of health promotion programs. Faculty could also help evaluate these programs and services to make them better, and provide capacity support during emergencies when our public health systems are overloaded.
Q. What practice-based partnership are you most proud of?
The Department of Epidemiology’s Student Epidemic Action Leaders (SEAL) team, a field epidemiology program created a few years ago that deploys students to public health agencies to both learn and provide service. As a PhD student in epidemiology at the School, I received great training in statistical and epidemiological methods, but it felt like the translational piece was missing. I had a desire to connect my research in ways that could really benefit people and not just end up in publications.
As a faculty member, with seed money from the School, I started the applied epidemiology program that I wish had been available when I was a student. Any graduate student in the School is invited to apply to the SEAL team during fall quarter.
We are on our third cohort and have SEAL students from epidemiology, health services, environmental and occupational health sciences and global health. Students in the SEAL program work on teams with practitioners and apply what they learn in class to the real-time needs of these agencies. SEAL team students have assisted our practice partners in managing recent Zika and mumps outbreak investigations, helped identify potential sources of lead exposure among pediatric refugees in Washington, and supported the state in transitioning to a new electronic disease reporting system, among many other terrific projects. It’s very rewarding to know that our students are providing surge capacity for partner agencies on time-sensitive issues while also gaining valuable professional skills.
Q. What skills do students need before entering the workforce?
Some important up-and-coming workforce skills include working with large data sets, data visualization and integration.
To be effective leaders, it’s important for students to have excellent communications skills and to work well in multidisciplinary teams. Being a creative and flexible thinker is also crucial because we are dealing with complex public health problems — some emerging, others long-standing and well-entrenched, so it will take a lot of out-of-the-box thinking and collaboration to tackle them.